In spite of the fierce, wrenching content of her books, Tahmima Anam in real life is a gentle, warm, incredibly youthful presence. We met in livetime a few years ago in Washington, DC, as her debut novel, A Golden Age, was winning major international awards, including the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Recognizing the literary stardom to come, Anam was the earliest invitee to the Smithsonian Institution’s 2008 South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival [SALTAF], an annual public program of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (my then-day job that came with serendipitous literary perks for sure). By the time Anam landed in DC from London almost 11 months after that initial invite, she had earned some well-deserved, hefty accolades.
Tahmima Anam’s impressive debut, A Golden Age, is the first of a trilogy set in Bangladesh, before, during, and after the War of Independence that ended in 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh as a new nation separate from Pakistan. Anam’s first protagonist is Rehana Haque, who while still mourning the sudden loss of her too-young husband, loses custody of her young son and daughter to a scheming brother-in-law. Separated for a year with her children faraway in Lahore while she remains in Dhaka, Rehana – in spite of what seems to be the impossible trap of young widowhood without a clear means of support – manages to reunite with her children out of sheer will, determined she will never lose them again. In 1971 when the people of Bangladesh declare independence from Pakistan, Rehana is no longer certain how she can protect her children during a horrific time marked by betrayal and terror. But neither will she remain a silent bystander while civil war threatens to destroy her family, friends, and adopted country.
From Rehana, Anam shifts her focus to the Haque children in The Good Muslim, the second book of her Bengal Trilogy which debuts this month. For the first time since the war, Rehana, her son Sohail, and daughter Maya are under the same roof … and yet their physical reunion is overshadowed by emotional disconnection. Sohail’s wife has just passed away when Maya returns home, leaving behind shocking violence in the small village where she was a doctor for several years. She is tired and spent, having witnessed the too-often subjugation of women just for being women. She can’t comprehend Sohail’s new religious fervor since his return from the war, his reinvention as a revered Muslim leader, nor his unbending rules and expectations in the name of a god that Maya can’t accept as absolute. Sohail’s devotion to his faith leaves him blind to his utterly neglected son – a frail young boy, unwashed, clothed in tatters, thieving, lying, and yet the only request he voices regularly is to be able to go to school. Bypassing her brother’s objections, Maya tries to at least provide her nephew with a basic literacy, but her attempts at enlightenment have tragic consequences.
Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1975, currently domiciled in London, Anam’s writerly strength is driven by a sharply observant imagination that allows her to recreate a time before she was born, before she had access to her memory. Surely her international upbringing in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok – thanks to her father’s peripatetic UN career – instilled in her a broad understanding of humanity in diverse situations. Her privileged education – undergrad at Mount Holyoke, PhD in social anthropology at Harvard (yes, that’s Dr. Anam!) – made sure that xenophobia was never even a glimmering possibility in her questioning mind.
Catching up this time via phone lines strung under the Pond from DC to London, Anam was as soft-spoken as ever. That she spoke about war, corruption, imprisonment, and even rape, rarely changed her firm but even tone. She was also sure to balance the tragedy with joyful moments of family, love, and even someday-children. As expected, her ability to explicate and engage made an hour-plus pass all too quickly …
This year, Bangladesh is celebrating its 40th birthday. You were born four years later, and have now lived through much of your country’s tumultuous history, the vast changes, improvements, and challenges. What are some of your immediate thoughts about your birth country during this celebratory time?
I feel it’s a mixed bag. The good news is the incredible progress that has been made in major areas: we’ve been a functioning democracy for the last 20 years after a tumultuous period of martial law and army rule. The world of micro-credit founded by Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank has changed so many people’s lives, especially among the very poor. The fact that 95% of the borrowers are women means many improvements for women especially. Through microcredit and state investment in girls’ education, women are becoming economically powerful. They’re sending their daughters to school, they’re managing their homes, and taking jobs. Bangladesh has a strong feminist movement; women are advocating for legal changes to the constitution for more equitable rights.
In addition to the progress, I’m aware of a lot of problems, especially the threat of climate change. In spite of being a democracy, our government has a top-down political power structure. The people suffer because of corruption.
We need more democracy, less corruption. [… click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tahmima Anam,” Bookslut.com, August 2011